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Report: Camp Lejeune water highly contaminated with carcinogens

At a January 2011 gathering in Tampa of people who believe they were affected by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, Martin Maier wipes away tears as his wife, Sandra Maier, holds up a map of Camp Lejeune. Maier, who served in Vietnam and was stationed at Camp Lejeune in the 1960s, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has a son who died before the age of 30 from illnesses that were, Maier believes, related to the contamination of water at the military base.
Published Mar. 15, 2013

For much of Camp Lejeune's history, its drinking water was contaminated by potent carcinogens at levels rarely if ever seen in a large water system, a new federal report shows.

A study by scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry shows vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene (TCE) in water at the North Carolina Marine Corps base reached levels 33 to 153 times higher than what federal regulators today consider safe.

These compounds originate from several potential sources, including industrial solvents used at the base.

A copy of the report was obtained Thursday by the Tampa Bay Times. When it is publicly released today, it is expected to renew health concerns for the up to 1 million people who lived and worked at Lejeune from 1953 to 1985, when water was polluted. That includes tens of thousands of Floridians.

Many of those who drank, bathed and cooked with the fouled water have reported a range of cancers, from bladder and liver cancers to more than 80 men diagnosed with rare breast cancer.

"The findings are dramatic," said Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist who peer-reviewed the study and has advised the scientific agency on Camp Lejeune water issues. "These contaminant levels are extraordinarily high. Camp Lejeune is the most highly contaminated drinking water in the U.S. that I'm aware of.

"I think (the report) confirms the concerns people had all along — that this was a highly contaminated water source for lots and lots of people."

The Marine Corps would not yet comment. Capt. Kendra Motz, a spokeswoman, said, "I'm unable to comment on a report that has not been officially published by ATSDR."

It long has been known Camp Lejeune water was contaminated. But this report draws into sharper focus the scale and intensity of it.

"These levels are unprecedented in the history of modern-day drinking water systems," said former Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, whose 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of leukemia in 1985 that be believes was triggered by this polluted water.

"After nearly 16 years of involvement on this issue," Ensminger said, "this report is vindication and validation of what I've said all along."

The Corps has previously argued these contaminants were not regulated until the late 1980s and that it closed tainted water wells as soon as contamination was confirmed.

But documents show the Corps' own regulations, starting in 1963, barred the use of water with these contaminants, critics say.

And other military bases in the 1970s closed wells tainted with "unregulated" solvents, including Willow Grove Naval Air Station and the Warminster Naval Air Warfare Center, both in Pennsylvania.

The agency study is a "water model" that estimates contaminant levels at Camp Lejeune based on data from tens of thousands of federal and state documents during periods when water testing wasn't conducted. The model is a reconstruction of contaminant levels, but Clapp said it is "state of the art" and considered highly reliable.

This report examines contamination levels at Camp Lejeune's Hadnot Point and Holcomb Boulevard water supply systems. During much of the base's history, they served wide swaths of Camp Lejeune.

"Historical reconstruction . . . provide(s) considerable evidence that concentrations of several contaminants of interest in finished water . . . substantially exceeded current" thresholds of what is considered safe, the report said.

The report found:

• TCE levels in tap water exceeded safe levels from August 1953 to January 1985 with the highest level, 783 parts per billion, coming in November 1983. The maximum contaminant level of TCE today considered safe by federal regulators is 5 ppb.

• Vinyl chloride, perhaps the most toxic substance found in drinking water, exceeded safe levels from November 1972 to January 1985 with the highest level of 67 ppb coming in November 1985. The maximum safe level for vinyl chloride is 2 ppb.

• Tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, (used in dry cleaning or as a degreaser) exceeded safe levels from August 1974 to January 1985 with the highest reading of 39 ppb in November 1983. The maximum safe level for PCE is 5 ppb.

• Benzene (a fuel component) exceeded safe levels from January 1979 to January 1985 with the highest level found 12 ppb in April 1984. The maximum safe level for benzene is 5 ppb.

• The "most likely date" TCE contamination first exceeded safe levels was August 1953, but could go as far back as 1948 — just seven years after Camp Lejeune opened.

A municipal water system would typically close off a water source that exceeds the maximum safe levels for any of these contaminants, scientists say.

The scientific agency has several health studies under way, including studies of childhood cancer, birth defects and male breast cancer.

Former residents of the base have pressed the agency to conduct a cancer incidence study to determine if base residents and workers suffered abnormally high cancer rates. But that will be difficult without legislation to force individual state cancer registries to participate, Ensminger said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

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